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The Uni-Files

A candid look at EFL life and lessons from a university teacher's perspective.

July 16, 2013

‘Is it only me who thinks so?’- Local vs. Universal English Teaching and Learning Traits

Below are eight mini-hypotheses I've been entertaining, wondering how valid they are outside of my own experience or that of Japan:

1. Little boys and little girls

Does language interest or skill follow gender lines in a mixed-language family?

We are an international family. My wife is Japanese. I have a daughter and a son. I speak mostly Japanese to my wife but almost exclusively English to my children. My son has always responded to me only in English and has always been perfectly happy using English media, such as TV shows, English versions of games etc. My daughter almost never replies to me in English and seems to dislike English media, much preferring Japanese. My daughter understands my English well but is loathe to use it. Not only that, but my son’s English was better at the same age that my daughter is now.

So here’s the hypothesis I’m putting out: When families have dual language codes, boys tend to copy father’s language while girls see mother’s language as the ‘true tongue’. This seems to be consistent with other international families I know but, hey, maybe I live a cloistered life. Does this seem to be widely true? Not a universal, but a significant trend perhaps? I’m asking you…

2. 1st year vs. 2nd year students

It seems that almost everyone loves first year students. At any level. At any institution. First year students are eager, earnest, pliant, starry-eyed and bushy-tailed. They are untainted, pure, innocent, respectful, and obedient.

Switch to second year. Those students have now formed cliques. They know you and your foibles. They know what it takes to pass the class with the minimum effort. They’ve learned how to game the system from their seniors. The noble intentions that they entered with last year are put to rest. Postures change. They skip classes more. The work produced is more slipshod. They are more likely to challenge you or talk back, and not in that productive, give-and-take debate manner. There’s a tired been-there-done-that aura surrounding the classes. You’re no longer fresh or interesting to them.

Ok, I’m not saying that every first year class I’ve had has been angelic and the second year versions always diabolical but, generally speaking, the atmosphere of a first year class is palpably fresher and brighter than most second year sets. Or is it just me…?

3. The exotic local lingo from a distance vs. from the inside

When you don’t have hands-on familiarity with a foreign tongue it is easy to exoticize them. The Spanish apparently focus upon motion in a verbal phrase because their language is so constructed. Mandarin speakers organize thoughts more vertically than horizontally for the same reason. Koreans pay greater attention to the shape of countable objects because it is explicitly represented in their language.

This is the basis of Cognitive Linguistics, the belief that not only do languages reflect local culture and thought, but that they also inform and influence them. Note that I did not say ‘determine’ them, which would be a strong and largely discredited Sapir-Whorf model, but rather that cognitive influence exists at the level of ‘paying attention’.

Except that I sense this goes out the window to some degree when you are competent with that foreign language and use it widely (if not perfectly) on a day-to-day, face-to-face basis. Let me use my Japanese as an example. Most readers of this blog will have some familiarity with Japanese and know that for example, Japanese does not distinguish between jumping and flying, that expressions of being tired are used as greetings, that roles are used as address forms instead of names (in many, many cases), that there is a different word for water according to whether it’s heated or cooled, that simple verb inflections, even the root lexical item, will change according to the level of honorific required. You can think of hundreds of others I'm sure.

But it doesn’t take long to realize that there is no mystery or no revelation of mysterious underlying cognitive twists when using these terms and patterns, that the uptake and cognitive processing and emotional commitment one wishes to express remains the same, regardless of the language forms used to convey it.

I plan to write more about my doubts about CL here in the future but for the time being I’m wondering if others feel the same way…

4. The best speakers of L2 are clear speakers of L1

If a person is clear-headed and articulate in their mother tongue they tend to be better L2 communicators than those who are muddle-headed in their first language as well. Likewise, people with well-considered, complex thoughts that have been articulated in their minds in L1 will be more effective communicators when employing a foreign tongue.

I see this all the time. Students who ask me how to express something in English that they can’t even articulate clearly in Japanese (or can’t even communicate that need in their first language). Basic communication skills, or a lack thereof, transcend the language they are encoded in. I’m talking about people whose first language conveyance is so vague and undefined (intelligent though they may be) that they can’t even begin to form an adequate frame around those utterances in L2.

As a result, I’ve often told students that if they haven’t developed a clear notion of what they want to express in the mother lingo then there’s no way they’ll be able to do any more than flail away in L2. Attempting ‘to language’ your thoughts in L1 actually helps you to apply foreign language rubrics more accurately and effectively.

This is what Vygotsky was saying, like. Sort of. You know what I mean?

5. There is a local crew of foreign teachers who view the ‘host country’ as the enemy

I’ve heard about cabals of disaffected gringos, gwailos, gaijin, waegook, muzungu, and farangs in just about every country that has a substantial foreign EFL teaching population. The stories seem to follow a set pattern. Such people maintain a strong us-and-them division regarding the locals, while ironically often claiming that they are functionally excluded from full immersion in the local society and are treated as second-class citizens.

This apparently reflects the allegedly innate local racism, nationalism, or chauvinism. Local teachers get all the breaks, they get shafted. The local educational authorities are corrupt, the administrators incompetent, and the local language teachers inept and methodologically in the dark ages. The malcontents feel that local teachers and students should become more ‘like us’ and idealize the progressive nature of their homelands.

They believe the students are not free or critical thinkers. Fellow expats who feel comfortable within their adopted homes are considered to be ‘apologists’, Uncle Toms, even somehow traitorous. They are quite convinced that the country they work in represents the absolute nadir of progress, equality, and human rights. Nearly every local pronouncement is interpreted as a slur, such is their heightened sense of victimization.

But if they are men, they like the local women…

True enough in your world?

6. Students will wait until the last moment on classroom team projects

Let’s say you have a classroom team project and you’ve allotted three classroom periods for preparation and development before performance or submission day. But, until near the end of that third class very little has been done. The team members circle around the topic, even changing topics, until just before the prestige version is due. A lot of hemming and hawing occurs. Vague proposals are put forward, mulled over, but little actual progress appears to be getting made.

But a few days prior to the big day there is a flurry of productive activity and sure enough, sometimes shockingly so, a reasonably good product emerges from the preparatory abyss (although on occasion, the result is predictably mediocre). I often feel that if I had given students twelve weeks to do it, the same dawdling until the final few days would still have occurred. As a result, I now limit the prep time for such projects to ensure that class prep time is also used productively and install very strict and specific prep check schedules.

Now is this just a Japan thing or…?

7. Big boys and big girls

I’m expecting that this one is culturally relative, but I think it’s safe to say that English is considered more of a girl’s subject in Japan (if the language were gendered it would be prefixed with a ‘la’).

In many Japanese institutional scenarios it is the secretary (invariably a woman) or some other Eigo-no-onee-chan ('girl who speaks English') who is expected to handle the English communication. English specialist courses and schools seem to have a far greater number of female than male enrollees. My impression too is that Japanese women tend to pursue English more either as a hobby or actively seek out foreign experiences for learning English than men. Even the stereotypical model ‘local English teacher’ is usually a female (kind of like the image of the sultry Spanish/French teacher in North America).

What I am wondering though is if this actually has a washback effect on how students appropriate English in Japan (or other countries) according to gender. That males may resist learning to some degree if it is considered a subject that women are supposed to be good at—in other words the prejudice or stereotype actually produces what it believes.

I also note that, on average, female students in Japan tend to take better notes, focus upon more significant aspects of the language, and are more linguistically organized than the males. On average, of course. So, it is just me? Or just Japan? Or…?

8. The teacher’s knowledge of obscure, technical items defines them

If you teach ESP (I teach medical students), you’ve probably come across this phenomenon. In reading some technical English prose, a student comes across an obscure technical term that they are not familiar with. Say this happens in a classroom. And let’s say that this term is ‘endometriosis’. And the student asks you what it means.

Now, as an English teacher, even as a teacher of English to medical students, you are not particularly concerned with that term, it is well down the list of must-know lexical items, and in fact you actually don’t know what it means (at best you can make a rough Latinate estimate).

Your pedagogical concerns are far more focused upon having students absorb the ebb and flow of medical discourse as a specialized speech community, helping them to gain both knowledge and sensitivity regarding speech events, such as taking histories, transacting patient information, explaining diagnoses/prognoses etc. as opposed to spoon-feeding them the meaning of every obscure item, most that they could easily look up and understand more fully by themselves.

Yet, if you admit that you don’t know exactly what ‘endometriosis’ is, to most students it is the equivalent of saying that you don’t know what a verb is, or that you have no idea how to start a patient introduction letter. How can you be a qualified English instructor and not know the meaning of every damned term in the field? Forget your skills at classroom management, scaffolding tasks, and gradating language items and skills to enhance the learners’ holistic English skills—if you admit to not knowing that one obscure item, in the eyes of such students, you’re a bum.

Or, again, is it only me who senses this reaction?

I await your comments and responses.

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1. Little boys and girls.
I think it's more complicated than just gender. My son speaks good English, but if left alone, he will read, speak, and watch TV/YouTube only in Japanese. He speaks it to my wife.

Then again, I don't have other children. Maybe we're dealing with a first/only child comparison here. I have a friend with 2 sons. The older speaks more English than the younger one.

2. 1st vs. 2nd year students.
First-yr students are more naive and genki, at least at first. More malleable. But this can change even within the first semester. On the whole, though, yes, they are more impressionable (to the teacher).

3. Exotic lingo
I'm not sure where you are coming from on this one, Mike. Needs more clarification.

4. best L2 speakers are good L1 speakers
For readers, I've heard that it doesn't matter whether they are good L1 readers or not. Not sure if it applies to speakers. All I can say is that most students nowadays speak and write their own language badly (as confirmed by several Japanese teachers and my wife).

5. local foreigners who consider Japan the enemy
Yup, it's a bubble thing all their own. To them, it's "we foreigners" all the way, and they strongly feel they think and act so much more properly. Sigh.

6. students waiting till the last moment
No, this is not a Japan thing. My own experience in the U.S. and my 2 teacher friends there will support that. And, it's not a group thing, either. Individuals generally wait till the last minute. How many expat teachers do you know who have their JALT presentations ready and practiced well enough even a day before a conference? I know many who are still putting slide together moments before the talk.

7. big boys vs. big girls
I think research supports the fact that girls have a stronger interest in foreign languages (and are better at them). Unfortunately, it's a man's world most of the time, and that leads only to problems. Washback effect in classes? Don't know. Might be a good survey question, but it will depend on what year of school they are in, I suspect, as well as what career they are pursuing.

8. teacher's knowledge of obscure terms
I disagree. Putting it to students in the most obvious way, that unless you have a background in the term, you are unlikely to know it. That doesn't make one a bad teacher or stupid, just unaware of the word's meaning.

Thanks Glen.

What I meant by the last item is that we will be seen by many students as incompetent for our failure to know some obscure technical item, even though pedagogically, and in terms of EFL teaching ability, this shouldn't be an issue.

The cognitive linguistics item I will expand on. The bottom line is that the more you know of an L2, the less exotic it seems and therefore the less likely one is to ascribe surface differences to differing culturo-cognitive underpinnings.

I understood what you meant about how we might be perceived with not knowing obscure technical lingo. I disagree, especially if we put it to the students clearly enough.

Example: Excuse me, but that's not my field. Do you know all words in all fields in your own language, Takashi? Oh, by the way, Takashi, I ***do*** understand that "-osis" in "endometriosis" is probably a suffix for a kind of disease, and that "endo-" is a prefix which means inside, so it's a disease inside the body somewhere. You know, like endoscopy and halitosis.

Regarding the CL thing, I think it goes without saying that the more you know ***any*** topic (geography, history, language, math, etc.), the less exotic/strange/awe-inspiring it might appear, although as a scientist, I might disagree with the wondrous side of things. Like Einstein wrote, "The most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it is comprehensible", and "The universe is not only queerer than we imagine, it is queerer than we can imagine." But I digress. Yes, if you know and practice a foreign language more, you will not only feel more comfortable with it, but you will likely see it as less exotic simply because it is more understood, even if only on a subconscious level.

Hey Mike, you have some good insights here, thanks for sharing them. I hope it sparks some discussion here.

Just a quick thought on number 1, I'll try to comment on others at a later time...

I was thinking along the same line as you in terms of boys/girls and their language development. My son (the oldest) tries really hard to use English with me, while my daughter (second child) seems to loathe English. Sounds similar to your situation.

So I was thinking maybe it was a gender related thing as well, until my youngest daughter (third child) came along. She's a little over 2 now and just starting to verbalize, and while its still too early to tell, she seems to prefer English. Certainly much more so than my elder daughter did at the same age.

So maybe Glen is right, perhaps it has more to do with birth order than gender. Who knows, there are so many variables at play. For the good of humanity, Mike, why don't you have a third child and report your findings?

Agree with you here, Glen-- that teachers don't have to feel that such a 'miss' constitutes a shortcoming-- also that we can/should point out to the students that knowing every term is not the point of our jobs.
The interesting thing, to my mind, though is that many students, and indeed much of the general public, think that the essence of teaching ESP is knowing-- and teaching-- a lot of obscure terminology.

Mark- Funding baby-making. Hmmm Looks like I've got a new kaken-hi research proposal....

Points 1 & 4 raise questions that teachers may have to consider but that parents of bilingual kids, like myself, feel even more acutely. I don't think any given family can be anything more than a case study, but here's my take.

Gender no doubt is one factor, particularly in a culture like Japan that delineates the sexes linguistically. But there's also birth order, parental approach (one parent, one language or one language at home, other language outside, etc), the amount of time spent with one parent or the other, interactions with other kids, various language input (TV, videos, books, etc). And then there's that all-too-vague term 'personality'. I can see all those factors at play in my three kids, all born in Japan to a Japanese mum but now, after a year in Ireland, all using English as their L1. The older two seem to be less mature and confident in their speech than many of their peers, but I hope this is an area where they will catch up over the next few years. Our youngest obviously made the move at the youngest age, but he's also an indefatigable chatterbox which no doubt helped speed up the language transition process.

Our family 'plan' (my wife will sneer if she ever reads that!) was always to leave Japan at some point so our kids' English has always been important (we even sent the older two to an international school). My main fear has always been that our often inconsistent attempts to raise them as bilingual would result in one or more of them falling into the limbo that I think is best referred to as 'semi-lingual'. So far, at least judging from academic records, they are doing okay.

I think that at the core of all of this is one key word - identity. "Am I Irish or am I Japanese?" to me is a fundamentally more important question than "Should I speak English or Japanese?" The answer is of course, "Both."

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